NFC North: Vernand Morency
We all knew the Detroit Lions were committed to improving their running game this season. But with all the problems they've had in their first two games, it's a little jarring to see reports of their running back tea party Tuesday at team headquarters.
Two weeks after signing veteran Rudi Johnson, the Lions had former MVP Shaun Alexander and ex-Green Bay runner Vernand Morency work out for them. Disgraced former Chicago tailback Cedric Benson also visited.
None were signed, and reports indicated the Lions were merely building an internal scouting report should they need to add a runner in the future. But as John Niyo of the Detroit News points out, the same thing was said the night Johnson arrived for his visit Labor Day weekend.
As it stands, Johnson is backing up rookie starter Kevin Smith. The No. 3 runner is rookie Marcus Thomas, whom the Lions claimed on waivers from San Diego.
From this vantage point, personnel in the backfield ranks pretty low on the Lions' list of concerns. You can only hope the Lions are attacking the rest of their issues with the same tenacity.
Elsewhere around the NFC North this morning:
- After losing three of five night games last season, Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy commissioned an internal study to compare his team's performance during day and night games. The results, according to Jason Wilde of the Wisconsin State Journal, were noticeable. They averaged more than four additional penalties at night and had a significantly worse turnover ratio. The Packers play Sunday night against Dallas, the second of four prime-time games this season for a team with an average age of 25.57.
- Minnesota probably wishes Carolina receiver Steve Smith was suspended for one more game. The last time he played them, Smith caught 11 passes for 201 yards in a 2005 game. On the first play of the 2001 season, Smith returned a kickoff 93 yards for a touchdown at the Metrodome.
- Talk about the impact of big plays: More than a third of the total yards the Vikings have allowed came on four explosive plays. The exact figures, according to the Star Tribune: 220 of 638 yards.
- Although the Bears haven't updated the status of kick returner/receiver Devin Hester, the Chicago Tribune reports he should be healthy enough to play Sunday against Tampa Bay.
The Green Bay Packers were so impressed this summer with running back Kregg Lumpkin, an undrafted rookie from Georgia, that they released three veteran backs to keep him on the roster. Vernand Morency, Noah Herron and DeShawn Wynn were all jettisoned when Lumpkin won the No. 3 tailback job behind Ryan Grant and Brandon Jackson. (Wynn was later signed to the practice squad).
The idea was for Lumpkin to provide depth while learning the ropes from Grant and Jackson. But with Grant nursing a sore hamstring and Jackson recovering from a mild concussion, Lumpkin took all the snaps at tailback Wednesday in practice. Both Grant and Jackson are expected to play Sunday at Detroit, but the situation underscores the faith the Packers have in a rookie few NFL fans might have heard of.
"I think he could handle it all," coach Mike McCarthy told reporters in Green Bay. "He's done a very good job with his opportunities."
Lumpkin was active but did not play in Monday night's 24-19 victory over Minnesota. Based on the health of his teammates, that could change Sunday in Detroit.
Elsewhere around the NFC this on this Thursday morning:
- Under McCarthy, the Packers are a combined 9-0 against Minnesota and Detroit. Conveniently, they open the season against those two teams. Overall, McCarthy is 10-3 against the NFC North.
- Vikings coach Brad Childress on quarterback Tarvaris Jackson's mindset: "He's doing fine. It's not like he's on suicide watch or anything like that."
- The Lions made a number of lineup moves Wednesday, but it doesn't appear that first-round draft pick Gosder Cherilus will be involved in any of them. Cherilus will continue to back up right tackle George Foster for at least one more week. It's probably a smart move to avoid starting a rookie against Packers left defensive end Aaron Kampman.
- Sunday's Packers-Lions game will be televised locally in Detroit after a furniture store purchased the remaining 3,100 tickets to secure a sellout.
- David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune on Bears quarterback Kyle Orton: "Don't get caught up in the notion that Orton can't make plays or win games. That tag might have applied when Orton was a rookie asked mostly to hand off. Now, three years later, the Bears expect him to do more and need him to do more."
You can view the Packers' list of roster moves here.
Biggest surprise: You knew some good running backs would get released given the Packers' depth at the position, but you just didn't know who. As it turned out, the Packers released two veterans -- Vernand Morency and Noah Herron -- in favor of rookie Kregg Lumpkin. (The Packers had already waived DeShawn Wynn.) Lumpkin was one of the surprises of training camp and impressed coaches with his tenacity as well as his skills. Of course, the majority of the Packers' carries this season will go to Ryan Grant and Brandon Jackson.
No-brainers: The receiver position was another area of depth for the Packers, so it wasn't surprising to see them release four wideouts Saturday. Most notable was seventh-round pick Brett Swain. But few rookies were going to crack a group that includes Donald Driver, Greg Jennings, James Jones and Ruvell Martin. (Second-round draft choice Jordy Nelson was the only one.)
What's next: Although his injury was not believed to be season-ending, the Packers placed long-snapper J.J. Jansen on injured reserve because of a sprained lateral collateral ligament. The means they will have to find a new long snapper this week. Thomas Gafford, waived by the Bears on Saturday, could be a possibility. The Packers could also bring in several players for tryouts before deciding what direction they're going. Meanwhile, although quarterbacks Matt Flynn and Brian Brohm both made the roster, there are no guarantees the Packers won't seek a veteran backup for Aaron Rodgers this week.
The Green Bay Packers made two significant roster moves Monday, releasing running back DeShawn Wynn and placing defensive tackle Justin Harrell (back) on the reserve/physically unable to perform (PUP) list.
UPDATE (11 a.m. CT): Packers general manager Ted Thompson told reporters in Green Bay that Harrell will undergo surgery, possibly Monday, to "kind of hurry things along."
Wynn, a seventh-round draft pick in 2007 who started four games as a rookie, was among four players released. Wynn rushed for 203 yards last season and was the Packers' leading rusher until a shoulder injury ended his season.
That injury opened the door for previously-unknown Ryan Grant to take over the position, and Wynn entered training camp no better than fifth on the depth chart behind Grant, Brandon Jackson, Vernand Morency and Noah Herron.
Harrell, meanwhile, has been unable to stay healthy since the Packers made him the 16th overall pick of the 2007 draft. An ankle injury limited him to seven games last season, and now a back injury is threatening his status this season. He has not participated in training camp.
Now, Harrell is ineligible for the first six games of the season. After that point, he can practice for up to three weeks before the Packers must decide whether to add him to the active roster or place him on season-ending injured reserve. He will not count against the 53-man roster until that point.
Here's what Thompson said Monday at his weekly news conference:
"Eventually we hope he's the good player we think he is. He was a good player in college. He had some injuries in college, and we need to get past that. We don't think there's anything fundamentally wrong with him. We don't think it's a lack of toughness. We just think he's had some bad luck. We think he's going to be a good part of a good group."
In the bigger picture, Harrell's latest injury has come at a bad time for the Packers. They traded away defensive tackle Corey Williams in the offseason, in part because the hoped Harrell would be ready to take over a starting job. Fellow defensive tackle Ryan Pickett also has been limited by injuries this summer, and Johnny Jolly faces possible NFL discipline after a July arrest for drug possession.
The rest of the Packers' roster moves can be viewed here. They are now in compliance with the NFL's mandated roster limit of 75 players by Tuesday.
We shut things down Thursday night at halftime of the Chicago Bears' third preseason game. But it appears their defense fared no better at the start of the third quarter in a 37-30 loss to the San Francisco 49ers.
After a first half in which they allowed 248 yards, the Bears gave up a 62-yard drive to struggling 49ers quarterback Alex Smith. Overall, Chicago surrendered 425 yards, including 160 on the ground during a wholly uninspiring night for its defense.
Here's what defensive coordinator Bob Babich said about the display, according to the Chicago Sun-Times:
"Yeah, I'm very disappointed. We're very disappointed in our play tonight. We are a very good defense. We are going to be a dominant defense. We just need to make sure when we go out and play that we play at that level. We need to make sure the guys are in the right spots, and that all starts with me."
The poor defensive showing, however, didn't totally overshadow a promising start from quarterback Kyle Orton three days after he was named the Bears' permanent starter. Orton completed 10 of 17 passes for 147 yards and two touchdowns, including a nicely-placed 21-yard strike to receiver Rashied Davis.
Here's how Chicago Tribune beat writer David Haugh put it: "As many questions as the defense raised, Orton answered a bigger one in a convincing manner."
Elsewhere around the NFC North:
- Green Bay Packers safety Aaron Rouse, whose 6-foot-4 frame makes him a pretty scary defensive back, will be relegated to special teams status again this season, writes Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
- Jason Wilde of the Wisconsin State Journal offers a Packers roster analysis. Among those he considers on the bubble: Running backs Vernand Morency and Noah Herron, tight end Tory Humphrey, defensive end Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, defensive tackle Justin Harrell and cornerback Jarrett Bush.
- Tom Kowalski of Mlive.com provides a similar analysis on the Detroit Lions. His bubble players include running back Tatum Bell, right tackle George Foster and linebacker Buster Davis.
- Minnesota Vikings coach Brad Childress on how he is handling quarterback Tarvaris Jackson's knee injury: "I do not want to insinuate with him that he's not a tough guy or has to play injured. He has to be able to have some of his faculties. He's got to be able to protect himself."
- Vikings receiver Bernard Berrian is expected to play Saturday night against Pittsburgh after missing the team's last preseason game because of turf toe.
Yes, the Green Bay Packers have focused this summer on transitioning to a new starting quarterback. (We have mentioned that a time or two on this blog). But an important facet of that transition was supposed to be having tailback Ryan Grant established as their every down running back.
The idea was that having a starter with some pedigree -- Grant nearly cracked the 1,000-yard barrier last season even after sitting mostly idle for the first six games -- would take some pressure off quarterback Aaron Rodgers. It would also help align the Packers offense more closely with what coach Mike McCarthy says his core values are: Power running and aggressive defense.
That plan has yet to develop, however. Grant held out the first week of training camp and has sat out the preseason because of a nagging hamstring injury. He missed practice again Thursday and, according to the Wisconsin State Journal, appears unlikely to play Friday at Denver.
McCarthy said Grant is getting close to returning to practice, but his summer already is a bust. There are plenty of established running backs who get minimal work during the preseason, but Grant's situation is a little different. He has done minimal football activities since the end of last season, sitting out offseason practices because of the contract situation and participating in only a handful of training camp practices because of the hamstring.
For those reasons, it's reasonable to start wondering how prepared Grant will be for the grind of a 16-game season. The Packers have depth on their roster -- Brandon Jackson, Vernand Morency and Noah Herron to name a few -- but Grant proved last season he is a step above them. It's a situation definitely worth monitoring as the regular season approaches.
Continuing our morning jog around the NFC North:
- Packers linebacker Brady Poppinga apparently is fending off a challenge from free agent acquisition Brandon Chillar to remain the strong-side starter, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
- Chicago Bears defensive end Mark Anderson had minor surgery on his thumb but is expected to be ready for the start of the regular season.
- In part because of Anderson's injury, the Bears will continue using defensive tackle Israel Idonije at end.
- Tatum Bell is losing a competition with Kevin Smith for the Detroit Lions' starting tailback job, but Smith told the Detroit News: "I have had a solid camp and hopefully it translates into a good year." (Bell had a lot more to say about former Lions offensive coordinator Mike Martz, which we'll get to in a separate post a bit later).
- Minnesota Vikings rookie linebacker Erin Henderson, the younger brother of Vikings middle linebacker E.J. Henderson, leads the team in preseason tackles (16) and has a good chance to make the 53-man roster, according to the Star Tribune.
As you might recall, we moved from Bourbonnais, Ill., to Green Bay, Wis., on Day 4 of our training camp tour. Days 5-16 (by my count) were spent in Green Bay. (Good people, good times.)
Continuing with the Camp Wrap series:
What we learned about the Packers this summer:
1. Brett Favre won't be the quarterback this season.
1a. Ha! Just thought we'd hit you over the head with that one more time. Seriously, we did learn that if nothing else, Favre's successor has a good head on his shoulders. We're not yet sure of his acumen on the field (see below), but Rodgers certainly has the right mindset to be a starting quarterback in the NFL. His laid-back personality served him well during the summer media circus, and from everything we gathered, Rodgers remained confident throughout a period when thousands of people were suggesting he get demoted.
2. The Packers have a deeper group of skill position players than people around the country might realize. Donald Driver, Greg Jennings and James Jones are as good of a receiving trio as there is in the NFL. Behind them, Ruvell Martin and Jordy Nelson are also competing for playing time. There are perhaps five running backs on the roster who have made a case for playing time: Ryan Grant, Brandon Jackson, DeShawn Wynn, Vernand Morency and Noah Herron. And the Packers have at least three intriguing tight ends behind starter Donald Lee: Tory Humphrey, Jermichael Finley and Evan Moore.
3. Say what you want about Rodgers, but to us the Packers' biggest risk is entering the season with two rookies behind him. Neither Brian Brohm nor Matt Flynn have been awful this summer, but they are what they are: rookies. Brohm is known as a quick study, but he's not a savant. If either Brohm or Flynn has to play early in the season, the Packers will have a tough time.
What we still need to find out:
1. Can Rodgers play? It's a simple question, but one that's impossible to answer about someone who has never started an NFL game. After watching more than a week of practice, we can conclude Rodgers has a strong-enough arm and that he appears to know the Packers' offense well. But his accuracy left something to be desired at times, and it's difficult to know how he'll react to unexpected blitzes once the regular season begins.
2. Entering the Packers' second preseason game (Saturday night at San Francisco), it's far from clear who will emerge victorious from the competition at both guard positions. Chris Jenkins of the Associated Press broke down the issue recently. To sum it up: Third-year player Jason Spitz figures to win one of the jobs, but which one depends on whether Daryn Colledge, Allen Barbre or Josh Sitton ends up as the other starter.
3. The Packers' plans to improve their pass rush were no secret during the offseason; their exact intentions, however, weren't totally clear during camp. Will they blitz more? Use different personnel in passing situations? Those questions are still in the experimental phase.
The Green Bay Packers have a little issue at quarterback. (You might have read a word or two about it here.) Otherwise, their lineup consists mostly of returning starters. Here are a few interesting depth situations where movement could occur:
Backup running back: Brandon Jackson vs. Noah Herron vs. Vernand Morency
Ryan Grant emerged from this group as the unquestioned starter last season, and that's how the Packers will begin training camp -- if Grant signs a contract extension by that time. Whether he is signed or holds out, however, the Packers want to establish a pecking order behind him rather than using the committee style they opened last season with.
Jackson is the clear favorite to secure that role and would be the likely starter if Grant's absence is prolonged. A second-round draft choice last season, Jackson is built low to the ground and would have success in the Packers' west-coast scheme. He has worked this offseason on improving his pass catching so that he can compete for a third-down role as well.
Intensity index: Hot
Long snapper: J.J. Jansen vs. Thomas Gafford
Yes, you read that right. The Packers have competition at long-snapper following the retirement of Rob Davis. True story: During a trip to Packers mini-camp this summer, committed members of the Wisconsin media were charting each practice snap.
The competition is wide open, at least as of now. The Packers are going to have to make some roster moves in order to fit their full draft class under the NFL's 80-man cap. But as of Thursday morning both Jansen and Gafford were still on the Packers' roster. Not many teams have the luxury of taking two long snappers to camp with them, but it clearly represents a priority for the Packers.
Intensity index: Hot. (Is there any other way to describe a long-snapping competition?)